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With 2018 Halfway Over, Here Are the Best Films of the Year So Far

2018 may be turning out to be a miserable year on just about every front, but at least it’s been a good one for cinema. Now that we’ve passed the halfway point for this annus horribilis, it’s worth taking a look at the films that have stood out so far. With one notable exception, this list only includes pictures that have received a theatrical release in the first six months of the year. There are several outstanding movies from Cannes and Sundance that will come out later this year — titles like Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and Gaspar Noé’s Climax, to cite just three examples — and those have not been included. Here, in rough order starting with the best, are my favorite films of the year so far.

The Rider (Chloé Zhao)

“ ‘You’re on big old Gus again. Loping across the prairie, feel the wind on your face, chasing them cows out of the trees. You excited? You bet, brother.’ A horseman says this to another near the end of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, the dreamy vision full of both hope and melancholy. For the young cowboys at the heart of Zhao’s film, mounting a horse and galloping across a field represents more than just freedom — it becomes a communion with the past and the future, allowing these riders to imagine and inhabit their best selves. And there’s the rub: The movie’s about what happens when you can’t ride anymore. These lines are spoken in an antiseptic hospital room, by one broken boy to another.” — from my review

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You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

“As depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.… Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?” — from my review

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Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)

“ ‘Trust me when I tell you that this isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story,’ Wilkerson proclaims right at the opening, and he’s not lying. Working his way through home movies, documentary footage, photographs, interviews, narration, and text, he tells us about his great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, shooting and killing in 1946 a black man by the name of Bill Spann who had come into Branch’s small store.… This is also a movie about haunted places, and Wilkerson’s specters reconnect us with one of the sources of Americans’ fascination with ghost stories — the sense that beneath our feet and behind our walls lurks a history filled with horror, hate, and slaughter, and that, if conjured the right way, it might all return some day.” — from my review

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First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

“My first reaction was how few scripts I read are really the work of a writer. When you read Paul Schrader’s script, he’s given voice to something that’s on the tip of all of our tongues. The movie is giving voice to this anxiety I think I was feeling inside but didn’t have any way to articulate. And this character made it manifest.… You’re really aware while you’re watching it that the architecture has been carefully built. No shot seems like it could’ve possibly gone on a second longer or cut a second sooner. It’s made with a razor blade.” — from Lara Zarum’s interview with Ethan Hawke

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The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson)

“[A] delirious reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, created out of hundreds of clips from movies and shows shot in the Bay Area that were very much not Vertigo.… Maddin has made a career out of mining the latent tensions of mainstream cinema, often by pushing the styles and attitudes of classical filmmaking to absurdist extremes. This time, playing with existing footage, he and his collaborators do something similar, but the effect is more subtle, and in its own way more expansive. We watch clips and clips of men communing across restaurant tables, with all the dialogue parts removed, and the silent, tense exchanges start to gain a sexual charge — as if every form of human interaction has suddenly been reduced to a series of secret impulses and desires. Lust, repression, voyeurism, and narcissism all turn out to be part of the same spectrum: Men watch women from cars, in restaurants, across rooms, on screens — just as Jimmy Stewart watched Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s original, and as we do whenever we watch Vertigo. But they also watch other men. And sometimes they watch themselves.” — from my review

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Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)

“America is convulsing, and this story is bringing up these hard-hitter ideas. What do we need to be happy? Can we be happy with less? There are obvious references to Walden, and in an era that’s busting out so violently, it felt like a real treat to be able to contemplate [Henry David] Thoreau for a minute, an American who thought differently a long time ago. There used to be nonconforming Americans who were seeking out something else. I want to be spending time in that world for a minute. I want to be immersed.” — from April Wolfe’s interview with Granik (You can read my review here.)

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The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)

“It’s all so simultaneously fucking horrible and hilarious that any question of whether it’s OK to laugh at this stuff — which, sadly, is the kind of question that gets asked these days — becomes moot. As Stanley Kubrick did with Dr. Strangelove, Iannucci has built a satire not by twisting the truth but by nudging reality just a few inches further in the direction it was already going. It should not be incumbent on people of good sense to hold their laughter in the face of such absurd evil. If anything, laughter should be a requirement — because only in well-observed ridicule can we sometimes find a power strong enough to put such monsters in their places.” — from my review (You can read Lara Zarum’s interview with Iannucci here.)

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Where Is Kyra? (Andrew Dosunmu)

“There has always been an air of loneliness about Michelle Pfeiffer onscreen. Even in her glamorous, gorgeous movie-star heyday, she often played women who were somewhat removed from the world.… I hadn’t fully realized this until I saw Andrew Dosunmu’s marvelous, shattering Where Is Kyra?, in which the actress is often the sole figure onscreen, playing a New York woman sliding deeper into poverty and despair. Although the film might seem a departure for her — and at least in terms of budget, it certainly is — watching it, I felt that Dosunmu had connected to something elemental within Pfeiffer, that solitude that brought subtle dimension to her earlier, more famous roles. This is the kind of part, and the kind of performance, that makes you see an actor’s entire career in a new light. And it’s probably the best she’s ever been.” — from my review (You can read my interview with Dosunmu here.)

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Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle)

[No quote included because you really should see this movie without knowing anything about it. Thank me later.]

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The Party (Sally Potter)

“Today, there seems to be such a quest for absolute moral certainty and clarity. We see people as either misogynist or they’re not, either racist or they’re not, and so on and so on, and there’s been a great retreat from nuance and complexity — from the fact that most people are a mix and full of uncertainty. I wanted to explore that idea of the gap between what people think they are and how they actually behave in a crisis situation. But most importantly, I wanted to do it all in the service of laughter, the cathartic power of laughter.” — from my interview with Potter (You can read April Wolfe’s review here.)

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Tully (Jason Reitman)

“[Diablo] Cody often employs a third-act surprise, but with Tully she reveals a downright Shyamalanian capacity for alienating an audience with a major plot twist. She presents it as a challenge for viewers to treat the story of a woman re-evaluating her life with the same seriousness as they would a mathematician tackling an unsolvable equation — and it works. Tully encapsulates the psychological process of maturity with pithy humor and vertiginous insight.” — from Serena Donadoni’s review

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Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein)

“Mark Perez has written one of the tightest comedy scripts to make it to the big screen in ages. Game Night, directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, wastes not a single second of dialogue, gives killer lines to every member of its all-star ensemble, delivers genuinely tense action sequences, and even goes for broke with style. Do we finally have an American counterpart to Britain’s Edgar Wright–Simon Pegg team?” — from April Wolfe’s review

The Workers Cup (Adam Sobel)

“The unnerving paradox at the heart of The Workers Cup extends to the viewer as well. On the one hand, I felt myself rooting for the GCC team, as the film eases its way into something resembling a sports movie; on the other hand, we see the system in which GCC operates. Sobel lets these conflicting feelings hang in the air, offering no pat conclusions, or convenient corporate bogeymen. By refusing to resolve or reconcile these contradictions, he ensures that we’ll keep thinking about them.” — from my review

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Nancy (Christina Choe)

“[Andrea] Riseborough’s great accomplishment is anchoring the comic dimension of her character with an undercurrent of gentle melancholy. I say ‘anchoring’ because the sadness both sells and tempers the comedy, turning her from a potential object of ridicule (or pity) into an object of fascination. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Nancy’s submerged anxiety. Riseborough manages a preternatural stillness while letting her eyes dart around with almost surreal speed — during one close-up I could have sworn that the film had jump-cut to a different close-up, but no, that was just the speed with which she’d managed to shift expressions.” — from my review

Paddington 2 (Paul King)

“The contemporary blockbuster talks a good game about compassion and mercy, but it still mostly panders to our bloodlust and rage. One reason to go to the movies is to unwind, sure, but we also want to indulge in fantasy and wish fulfillment, often about getting even — and woe unto the movie that denies us such simple, petty pleasures. Which is why in today’s studio firmament — even among that softer genre of family-friendly fare — the Paddington films stand out. Both 2015’s Paddington and now its sequel, Paddington 2, embody a kind of extreme empathy. They have their moments of spectacle — laugh-out-loud sight gags and genuinely exciting set pieces — but they’re also dominated by an overwhelming sense of kindness. They make us yearn to be better humans rather than badder badasses, and in today’s world, that feels downright radical.” — from my review

And since I have no fucking clue when — or if — this film will ever get a theatrical release…

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam)

“The very real possibility — maybe even the probability — of catastrophic failure clearly excites Gilliam; he makes almost no concessions to what is expected of him, or what might please contemporary audiences. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote bears the hallmarks of this director at his broadest, nuttiest, and most extreme, with unhinged performances, overt symbolism, and a cacophonous story that has the logic of a thousand dreams happening simultaneously. It is an uncompromising work that will make many viewers frustrated and even furious. I adored pretty much every single glorious, gorgeous goddamn minute of it.” — from my review

 

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“You Were Never Really Here” Is a Magnificent Nervous Breakdown of a Movie

I first saw Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was the final title to screen in competition because the filmmakers were still working on it. The Cannes cut made it in just under the wire in rough, unfinished form, with a running time that, hilariously, kept changing depending on who you asked. The festival had felt more lackluster than usual despite some standout titles — but then Ramsay came in at the last minute with her cinematic hand grenade and shocked many of us into attention, and awe.

That moment — the shock, the uncertainty, as well as the triumph — felt particularly sweet because Ramsay herself had been missing from screens for a few years, after a rather public and messy falling-out with the producers of the western Jane Got a Gun, which she had originally been slated to direct. (Gavin O’Connor eventually helmed the film.) But it also seemed curiously appropriate, since Lynne Ramsay makes movies about people on the edge, people up against the wall, people trying — and sometimes failing — to claw their way back out of existential holes. Her films reveal that she understands something elemental about brokenness, and that she can convey it particularly well through her mastery of form — in her work, composition, performance, and rhythm transform simple character interactions into discomfiting shards of cinematic poetry. (Her closest forebear in that sense is Sam Peckinpah, who pretty much redefined action cinema by turning violence into stylized, neurotic fever dreams.)

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Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel, You Were Never Really Here follows the disjointed, tormented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a former soldier and law enforcement official who now works as a kind of hammer-wielding vigilante for hire, finding missing people (usually, it seems, kids). He’s also suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress — he’s hounded at every turn by visions of the people he couldn’t save along the way. We see flashes of his childhood with an abusive father and feel his impotence at not being able to help his mother. We glimpse footage of a girl killed in Iraq and a shipping container full of dead migrants, and we understand that somewhere along the way, Joe wasn’t there for them as well. At Cannes, I wrote: “As depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.… Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?”

But there’s more to it than that. Joe himself is one of the left-behind. He’s self-destructive, in ways both alarming and playful. He might goof around with a knife while lying down, letting the blade hover a few inches above his face. He does a pretty funny imitation of Norman Bates in Psycho with his elderly, invalid mother. (I asked Phoenix about this bit when I interviewed him recently; apparently it was improvised, so we should probably give some credit to the actors here, too.) Joe will also wrap a plastic bag around his head and bring himself to the edge of asphyxiation, something we see him in flashbacks doing as a kid. He longs for oblivion. At times, we might wonder if he might have already achieved it. Could we be watching a ghost?

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That is because in You Were Never Really Here, Joe has a remarkable ability to disappear. Ramsay shoots the film’s action often by avoiding it altogether — showing Joe just rounding a corner, or leaving a room, a wake of carnage behind him. That’s a fascinating state of mind to put the viewer in: The story is told from Joe’s perspective, and yet all too often we don’t actually see Joe himself, simply the trail of destruction he’s left behind — bloodied heads and slit throats and mangled people and broken objects — so that he seems to become the sum total of the havoc he’s wreaked, both to others and to himself. Onscreen, our hero is a shadow, literally and spiritually. And by skirting the edge of oblivion, he has somehow turned his self-loathing and self-negation, all his self-destructive impulses, into a kind of secret power. As much as he needs to break free of his demons, his demons are also partly the reason why he’s able to do what he does. Ramsay has taken that terrifying paradox — one that many artists can probably relate to — and turned it into a transcendent, at times almost dangerous film.

You Were Never Really Here
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Amazon Studios
Opens April 6, Angelika Film Center, AMC Loews Lincoln Square 15

 

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‘Movies Are Strange, Man’: Joaquin Phoenix Talks About Not Knowing What’s Next

I don’t know. Those are the three words that Joaquin Phoenix probably says the most during our interview. He may be one of the greatest actors of his generation — possibly, the greatest — but even he seems not quite capable of articulating just how it is he does what he does. That somehow feels right. We’re talking about Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, for which Phoenix won the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a marvelous performance, but he speaks very little dialogue, and for much of the film we see him only in brief glimpses. During our chat, as the actor fumbles over his words — abandoning analogies halfway through, professing ignorance of his own talents, wondering if anything he’s done works onscreen — he reveals something of his art. Because so much of what Joaquin Phoenix does is about not knowing, both for us as viewers and for him as an actor. In his best performances, he gives off a sense of total absorption and aliveness. Everything seems possible and nothing feels predictable. No other working actor today seems more intuitive, more uncategorizable.

Don’t tell him that, however: Phoenix doesn’t watch his own movies. When I tell him how much I admired him in this film, he deadpans, “Maybe you have terrible taste.” Then when I respond that I’m a fan of his performances in general, he responds, “It looks like you do.” He says it cheerfully, but it’s also hard not to suspect that there’s some doubt in the back of his mind that he uses to rid himself of anything resembling self-consciousness or preciousness. That’s a perfect state of mind for You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s devastating and gripping alt-vigilante drama, in which Phoenix plays a hammer-wielding veteran who is paid to save kidnapped children and who brings all his rage and regret and self-loathing and desire for oblivion to the job. The actor is so convincing in the role that at first I was somewhat scared to talk to him. But the result was a fascinatingly open-ended discussion about acting, Ramsay’s brilliant film, as well as his turn as Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene.

I’ve always found there to be something distinct about Lynne Ramsay’s characters — they’re very submerged and self-negating. You’ve worked with a lot of different directors. Was there anything about her approach that felt different to you?

Every director is different. I’ve never once felt like there’s one standard. But what is unique about Lynne…I don’t know how she worked on other films, or how she worked with other actors, but on this movie, something that we were really cognizant of was trying to fight the clichés of the genre. We didn’t really have a set way of doing things. I imagine there’s like a wildly different performance in there, in other takes, you know. Because each take was different. That was kind of a goal — to do things that might seem out of character or uncomfortable, and play with things, and improvise. We looked for a way of approaching each scene that just wasn’t traditional, wasn’t what you’d expect. If anything in the script felt like it was something that we had seen before, we’d try to change it.

Even though you’re the lead and the whole movie’s pretty much from your character’s perspective, we rarely see your face. Sometimes, we don’t even see you. There’s so much of the film where we’re watching a room that your character has just left. I’m sure some of that happens in editing, but was that always the idea behind the performance?

Yeah, a lot of that was in the script. Certainly Lynne set the tone for that from the very opening scene, creating this kind of mystery around this character — where you’re not really knowing exactly where you stand with him and who he is and what he represents. That was pretty evident in the screenplay, but I’m sure there’s stuff that she does in editing to magnify that or to lessen it.

But for you, as the guy who has to give that performance, what kinds of challenges does that present? When you know that your face is not actually going to be on screen much, or that you’re not going to have as much recourse to dialogue? Do you have to work on the character’s physicality, say, or his posture, or how you walk?

I think it’s a mistake sometimes, as an actor, to think about a movie from the filmmaker’s perspective. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, and it’s one of the struggles that you have as an actor. So, I don’t ask what size lens is there and how much of my body are you seeing. I just have to inhabit the space the way I feel is right. And how the filmmaker captures that or uses it is up to them. It was important to never feel certain of how I was going to behave. The crew was amazing — particularly the camera and sound department, you know, who have to basically follow you around and capture what it is you’re doing — but there really was this feeling that the moment you locked something in, it just started to die. So it felt like things would always have to change and you’d act differently. It was really important for the film and the energy of the character to work that way.

It’s also a pretty violent movie, but so much of what we see is the aftermath of the violence. There’s one fight near the end where we see the whole thing, but that’s about it. For the other scenes of violence, did you guys actually shoot a lot of that stuff and then cut around it in the finished film?

I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not sure what’s in there, but it was intended that you didn’t see a lot of it. But there are probably other things that we shot and didn’t use. Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her. She’s like this brilliant eleventh-hour kind of person. And it’s really astonishing because the story shifted throughout production. There were a couple times where I thought, “Fuck, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re totally fucked.” And she just came up with something at the last minute, you know, and it was really, really impressive. Like, the brothel sequence was originally conceived as something different, and then she got to location.… But that’s what happens; you imagine something in your head and then you have to react to the location. That’s part of what filmmaking is, right? It’s the imagination, and then it’s the reality of what you’re working with. She was great at just reacting to the environment and coming up with something that felt unique.

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The Psycho references, when you’re playfully doing the “eee eee eee” sound and air-stabbing your mom — were those always there, or were those improvised?

Does it happen upstairs in the bathroom?

It happens twice early on in the finished film — once when she’s actually watching Psycho on TV, where you do it playfully. And then up in the bathroom, when she’s yelling at you from the other side of the door, and then you do it again — and it’s slightly more sinister the second time.

We shot all of that stuff with the mom over, like, two or three days in the same house. We played around with different versions of me coming home — what that could be like. And it was three takes in or something when Judith [Roberts, who plays the mother] said that she was watching Psycho; it wasn’t written in the script. She just said that, and so I did the Psycho voice. But I didn’t know if that was the take that was going to be used, so then upstairs when we shot that other scene, it just came up again. And I didn’t know if we would use that version or not. You know, there’s probably like four or five different versions of those scenes, each different.

Those two little moments early on in the film really let us know that we’re watching something quite different from the average revenge drama. They’re funny, of course, but they’re also revealing about the mother-son relationship.

Yeah. Initially in the story there was an almost idyllic dynamic to their relationship, where I was this loving son.… But it seemed like as we got into it, the reality is that when you’re taking care of somebody like that, who has a lot of needs and is struggling, inevitably you’re going to feel frustration. We wanted to find ways to show that.

When you’ve got a character like this who is so wounded, with such a complicated and tragic backstory, to what extent do you have to connect to those kinds of feelings to feel like you’re doing justice to the part?

I don’t know. It’s a good question, it’s a fair question. Movies are strange, man. Sometimes, you hear the writer talk about it, and you read about some of this stuff. For example, we spoke to someone who actually does [hostage] extractions. He goes in with a team. Some of the stories that he told were impossible not to be affected by. But to be honest, sometimes you’re fuckin’ eatin’ Fritos, and you shoot a scene. [Laughs] And you want to take credit for stuff as an actor, but the truth is that it’s really the filmmaking, ultimately. Probably some of the greatest moments in movies the actor was just thinking what was for lunch. So, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are times where you feel affected by things, and it’s emotional. But there’s other times when you go, “This scene is shit, and this is not fuckin’ working.” Then somebody tells you a year later, “I really love that scene. It felt powerful.” And you’re like, “Oh, really?” It’s probably different on every movie. And I think you learn something from every movie — even if the lesson is “Well, let’s not do that again.”

There were parts of this film that were really challenging. Part of it is that we put in a lot of time, a lot of work in pre-production, and that’s about going all day long, into the night, going through and talking. Also, Jim Wilson, who’s the producer, was a really big part of that process. There were a lot of changes to the script, and when you spend your time thinking about one subject matter, it starts seeping into you. Inevitably you’re affected by it. But there are times where maybe it’s just that you’re emotionally available, and so you can go in and shoot a scene and be brought right into it. But, you know, there were times in the fuckin’ brothel where the hammer would bend, and I’d be carrying it in my hand and everybody would be laughing. And I’d go, “Oh, what the fuck’s going on?” You know what I mean? I hope it ends up being a tense sequence, but over the one or two days that we shot it, there were moments that were really tense, and there were moments where we were going, “This is a stupid line. How the fuck are we gonna say this? What is this?”

So, how do you get through that? You’ve talked about trying to avoid being self-conscious. How do you pull that off? Because you seem to do it pretty well.

[Long pause]

And I realize that probably makes you self-conscious too, me just saying that…

I don’t know. There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene. The important thing with this movie was — and I acknowledge I probably do this a lot — to feel comfortable enough to make a lot of mistakes. To be able to say there’s not one right way for him to behave. Again, it seemed like the key was not knowing what his reaction was going to be. I’m sure that sometimes we used just a really straight version of a given scene, but we filmed so many different versions. You just dive head on into that feeling. But sometimes, when you’re making a movie, yeah, your nerves wear off and you grow accustomed to it, or you get tired, or whatever. Maybe it’s a million things over the course of the six weeks. So you just go, “OK, well, this is fuckin’ shit,” and you go outside and you sit and you talk about it, and you try to connect again to what is meaningful about this moment — to try and uncover something that you can latch onto. I guess. I don’t fuckin’ know, man.

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In You Were Never Really Here, there’s a random shot, almost part of a montage, where you’re reading a book and you tear out a page as you’re reading it. Do you remember the motivation behind tearing that page, or even what book it was? It’s such a mysterious little moment.

I don’t remember the book. It was just sitting there. That was another day in which we were shooting stuff in the house, and we had all these different things that we talked about as possibilities. I don’t remember why that came up. Honestly, it was probably nothing. There probably wasn’t like a great idea behind it. Don’t know that it symbolizes anything. I think it was just in that moment, it happened.… We shot a bunch of stuff. We shot a thing with the knife [Phoenix’s character plays with a knife, balancing it in front of his face] and we decided to use that, and use this book. But I honestly don’t remember what occurred to me in that moment. Maybe it’s something that I read about somewhere, or something I did once. I don’t remember. I have no idea why I did that.

It’s a great little moment. It’s probably better that you don’t remember why you did it.

It is. I mean, those are the things that I’m most interested in and want to be open to. I’ve become less interested in mapping things out, as an actor, and making decisions. Or maybe I’m just not good at doing that. Maybe, like, once I’ve made the decision, in that moment, it becomes boring. It just feels dead to me if you say, “This is what we’re doing.” And so, it’s just trying to be open to inspiration and what happens in the moment — feeling comfortable enough to make those decisions.

I don’t know if it’s in there, but do I sing a song in the movie, to the mirror? At the Russian bathhouse. It was just another thing that we’d talked about. A song that my grandfather used to sing to me. We were just trying things in that moment, and I think we were always trying to figure out where the song might go. I don’t know whether it came from Jim or Lynne or both, but they said, “Maybe try it here.” Sometimes, you have something and you don’t know precisely where it goes or if it will work, but you just try to create the space to try those things.

It’s revealing hearing you talk about this. My job is to write about movies, and often I have to discuss why the filmmakers made certain decisions. But hearing you talk, it’s clear that so many of those decisions are intuitive. You don’t necessarily sit down and reason them out.

Yeah, I’ve had both experiences, and certainly, my preference is the more intuitive — because I do think that if you’ve done your work and you feel familiar with the character in the world, that’s…I don’t know, any analogy sounds stupid. It’s like you have all your ingredients, right, and so you know your basics, of what you’re going to put together. But in the moment, you try a few different.… Oh, man, I don’t want to say herbs or fuckin’ spices! That’s so terrible; I don’t want to use that analogy! But you understand what I’m saying. And that is a joy. When I was younger, I thought the whole key to good acting was figuring it out, and locking something in and nailing it. And I just find that repulsive now. It was really something that we went after on this — just trying to be available and open to what the scene might tell you. I like that way of working.

I haven’t seen Mary Magdalene yet; I don’t even know when it will come out in the U.S. But how exactly does one prepare to play Jesus?

Well, there is a lot of information to consume, and a lot of it seems to contradict each other. So you just start reading all sorts of shit, and you go, “OK, well, I like this, and I like that.…” For me, it was important trying to find true contemporary figures that I thought possessed qualities that I was interested in. We always think about the spirit and mythical side of Jesus, but I was trying to find the humanity. That’s what makes the crucifixion such a sacrifice, because if he was just spirit-body then it’s like, “Great, I’m goin’ back.” Oftentimes, for me, research is great. Like, it’s great to take in a lot of information; it will give you ideas, and you’ll try to focus on, you know, what your character fuckin’ ate daily or whatever bullshit it is, right? But oftentimes it’s not until I start experiencing something, at least for me, that I start feeling close to it. I don’t know what the process is, but sometimes I just have to start having the experience. There was this healing scene we did, and it wasn’t until Garth [Davis, the director] and I started talking about it when we were on set, and I was in wardrobe, and I was touching the sand, did I start thinking about it differently — sort of feeling it instead of having this idea that in some ways was…I don’t know, I don’t want to say polluted, but in some ways polluted by the research that I did. I had a particular idea, and then when I got there it started changing. And I’m sure there’s still pieces of that work that are in there, but then it becomes something else — and to me, that’s the ideal place to get to.

 

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

The Best Film At Cannes Almost Didn’t Make It There On Time

One of my favorite things in the Village Voice archive is Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris’s coverage from the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, wherein they recount the breathless, will-he-make-it anticipation for the arrival of Francis Ford Coppola’s decade-in-the-works Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. That year’s other fest titles, as Haskell notes, were met with a combination of disappointment and praise, adding to a general, gathering sense of malaise, as everyone waited for “the Ayatollah Coppola” to swoop in and save the proceedings.

As it happens, Apocalypse Now did win the Palme d’Or, but that allegedly disappointing year also had (deep breath) Days of Heaven, The Tin Drum, The China Syndrome, My Brilliant Career, The Brontë Sisters, and, playing out of competition, Manhattan and Christ Stopped at Eboli! There were also three Fassbinder titles that year, including The Marriage of Maria Braun and In a Year of 13 Moons. So, you know, hindsight and all that. But 1979 will forever go into the books as “The Apocalypse Now Cannes.”

But that sort of thing happens here: An adored filmmaker, we’re told, is desperately rushing his magnum opus to the finish line, as the whole place buzzes with anticipation and trepidation — for both masterworks and catastrophes have a tendency to arrive messily and bloodily, trailing unfinished credits and temporary sound mixes. In 2004, Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 showed up wet from the lab, with the final reels rushed to the projection booth as the first were already unspooling. (It won no awards, and the Waiting for Wong through-line was ultimately upstaged by the spectacle of Quentin Tarantino’s jury handing Michael Moore the Palme for Fahrenheit 9/11. Hey, remember Fahrenheit 9/11?)

Which brings us to 2017, and Lynne Ramsay. We’d already heard, even before it all started, that Thierry Frémaux’s programming committee had viewed Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here in incomplete form but had still included it in competition because they saw “the potential of an artist, a poet, and an author.” All fest long, there were rumors that Jonny Greenwood was still finishing his score, that the film was due to arrive right before the premiere. Would the screening even happen? Would we all show up at the Salle Debussy and be confronted with a tie-askew Frémaux tearfully streaming a trailer and reading an apology letter? Would Last-Minute Lynne make it in time?

She absolutely did. You Were Never Really Here not only turned out to be the best film in the official competition, this 88-minute nervous breakdown of a movie provided just the jolt this Cannes needed. Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel (loosely, I’m gonna guess), it follows the agitated, fragmented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a kind of vigilante for hire who finds missing people. The plot ostensibly concerns his search for the daughter of a local politician who’s involved in a child sex-trafficking ring. But as depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.

We see glimpses of his childhood with an abusive father and feel his impotence at not being able to help his mother. We glimpse footage of a girl killed in Iraq (is it Iraq?) and we understand that somewhere along the way, Joe wasn’t there for her as well. His world is a kaleidoscope of failures both real and imagined: Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?

Some have compared You Were Never Really Here to Taxi Driver, some to Taken — both understandable references. The film it reminded me most of is John Boorman’s Lee Marvin–starring genre deconstruction Point Blank, which also disposes of the particulars of its standard-issue crime story and opts to create meaning through style. But another film it closely resembles is Ramsay’s own We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which Tilda Swinton’s character’s overwhelming sense of maternal guilt cast her in a kind of surreal waking hell, as she repeatedly replayed her recollections (some clearly unreliable) of a failed parenthood. In Ramsay’s cinema, emotion is memory, and it feeds the present and the future.

So, in You Were Never Really Here, Joe’s absence is both his great shame and his great skill: When he infiltrates a bad guy’s compound, he vanishes. The film’s action scenes…well, the film has no action scenes, that’s the whole point. When we catch up to a confrontation, whatever has to happen has already happened — we catch a glimpse of a bloodied head, a slit throat, a shot of our hero stepping away from the camera. Because he disappears; that’s what he does, for better and for worse. He’s like a superhero whose special powers are self-loathing and self-negation. As much as he needs to break free of his demons, his demons are also partly the reason why he’s able to do what he does. He could even be a stand-in for an artist, come to think of it.

It would have been quite a story if Ramsay’s buzzer-beating masterpiece had wound up snatching the Palme d’Or at Sunday’s ceremony. Alas, it had to settle for two awards: Best Screenplay (huh?) and Best Actor, the only two prizes at Cannes that can go to one film, which suggests that some on Pedro Almodóvar’s jury genuinely adored it. Instead, the Palme went to The Square, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s very funny and cutting exploration of utopianism and class, and the Grand Jury Prize to Robin Campillo’s powerful ACT UP drama, 120 BPM. (I reviewed both films here.) Best Director went to Sofia Coppola, the Ayatollah’s own daughter, for her excellent The Beguiled, and another Best Screenplay award went to Yórgos Lánthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (Those reviews are here.)

Meanwhile, the Jury Prize went to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which many felt would have been a natural for the Palme. And I was also gratified to see a Best Actress award for Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, a movie which most critics here seemed to detest but which I found quite moving. Almodóvar promised us some surprises early in the evening, but his jury delivered a slate of winners that seemed pretty close to what everyone had predicted — which was something of a relief, perhaps, after last year’s calamitously bizarre list of awardees. Good for them. And who knows? Maybe this lackluster competition year will one day look like a mind-blowing feast of cinematic riches. But in my mind, I’ll probably remember Cannes 2017 as the time when Lynne Ramsay held many of us rapt with anticipation — and then delivered a film for the ages.